I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I sometimes write,” the Spanish artist Remedios Varo once said, “as if I were making a sketch.” A sketch, perhaps, in the sense that Varo kept her writings in school composition books and didn’t intend to show them to the public, but it’s impossible to think of her meticulously crafted texts—including, in addition to these letters, fable-like tales, comical recipes, dream journals, and a pseudo-scientific spoof—as mere sketches. Born in Anglès, Spain in 1908, Varo graduated from the prestigious Academia de San Fernando art school in Madrid in 1930 and began to move in avant-garde circles in Barcelona. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, she headed to Paris with her then-partner, the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, and a few years later, with the onset of the Second World War and the German occupation of Paris, moved again as a refugee to Mexico City, where she remained until her death in 1963. She was a close friend and neighbor of the artist Leonora Carrington, with whom she shared a lively interest in witchcraft, alchemy, and the occult, as can be seen in the following letters, published here for the first time in English translation. Reading them, admirers of Remedios Varo will be delighted to discover her captivating, subversive voice, the verbal equivalent to the inventive wit that imbues her singular paintings.
To an Unidentified Painter
My dearest sir,
I have let a prudent amount of time go by and now believe, or more, I am absolutely certain that your spirit will find it auspicious to be in contact with me. I am a reincarnation of a friend you had in other times. She was little graced, physically speaking: an abundant nose, freckled complexion, reddish hair, weight less than it ought to be. Fortunately, my present incarnation has kept as a physical trait only her reddish mane. The rest my friend! what a mango! Greek nose, seductive curves without being obese, the advantage of assets beyond compare, to make a long story short … I have a few wrinkles? a minor detail! It’s the equivalent of the noble patina that fine objects acquire.
This reincarnation was not easy. After my spirit had passed, first through the body of a cat, then through that of an unfamiliar creature belonging to the world of velocity—I mean, the one that passes through us at over 300,000 kilometers per second (and which, therefore, we do not see)—I went on to land, inexplicably, in the heart of a piece of quartz. Thanks to a dreadful storm, electrical phenomena favored me, and a lightning bolt, striking said piece of quartz, freed my spirit, which, having spiraled downward, lodged in the body of a voluptuous woman who was walking by. I feel pleased with this turn of events and that’s why I dare to write you, in the understanding that you have not forgotten me.
I’ve considered the telephone an inhibitive apparatus, too cold for communication. But writing letters to each other is different. I believe my residence in a piece of quartz is an experience that may interest you; other small discoveries, too. I am ready to tell all.
At first glance, this poem may seem obscure, but the simplest of electronic mechanisms, in use so often today, can break it into pieces and offer some clarity. If you feel inspired to answer me, do give me a detailed account of your current activity.
My own, over the past four months, has consisted of raising a supernatural puppy. He’s a speaking, friendly animal, useful in case of great droughts, for there flows from his body almost constantly an amber liquid that ordinary people believe to be urine, but which I know is something of a superior chemical composition.
Because I live in a room with nonabsorbent flooring, I’ve judged that said animal should go live in Cuernavaca, in a garden where the plants can profit from the moisture this creature yields.
Regarding the maniacal activity called Painting … what can I tell you? We were both stricken by this disease, if you care to recall. I don’t know if you’ve persisted in this odd form of perversion, I have, alas! and feel more and more ashamed of such great silliness.
Do you smoke? I’ve plunged into a colossal struggle against nicotine and against smoke in general. I’ve managed a partial conquest of this matter and on good days smoke only six cigarettes. On days of longing, of depression, and when everything’s a mess, well! then I don’t know! This should be explained in a clear and precise way.
So then! of insomnia, of cold sweats, of liver-extract injections, of the desire to dig a rabbit hole into the earth to hide in, I say nothing! I await your news and only then will I tell you how I was visited, some while back, by a bewitching siren, a fervent admirer of yours who is very worried and unsettled because of your withdrawal from everyday life. A mystery!
I live, as before, in this pithead tower at Álvaro Obregón 72, telephone 11 20 84.
I remember the paellas of yesteryear, freedom of movement, and I kiss your phalanges, sir.
Letter to Mr. Gardner
Dear Mr. GardnerEnglish author Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) was a popularizer of Wicca. The book Varo is referring to is most likely Witchcraft Today (1954) or The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959).,
I’ve just become acquainted with your book, which has aroused in me the greatest interest. A friend of mine, Mrs. Carrington, has been kind enough to translate it for me, since I’m unable to read or speak English.
I believe a correspondence with you or with one of the people in your circle (if you’re too busy with your recherches) would be extremely interesting in order to exchange our experiences and knowledge with one another.
As you already know, in this country there is great activity in the realm of witchcraft, but all of these usages are almost always restricted to the practice of medicine or to the manufacture of love potions, all in a fairly mechanical and somewhat distracted manner on the part of the healer, and solely because that’s what the custom is. The main factor is always the faith of the patient, which in many cases brings about good results quite naturally. But this, doubtless of interest for psychology and psychiatry, is not what concerns us. In love potions, things are a bit more complicated and more dangerous, for the custom is to administer toloache concealed in a cup of coffee, and the effects of ingesting toloache are deadly, the main one being the total loss of will. Leaving all this aside, then, we—that is, Mrs. Carrington and some other people—have devoted ourselves to searching for facts and data that are still preserved in remote areas that participate in the true practice of witchcraft. Personally, I don’t believe I’m endowed with any special powers, but instead with an ability to see relationships of cause and effect quickly, and this beyond the ordinary limits of common logic. Also, and after long years of experimentation, I am now able to organize in an optimal way the little solar systems in the home, I’ve understood the objects’ interdependence and the necessity of placing them in a certain manner so as to avoid catastrophes, or of suddenly changing their placement to provoke acts necessary for the common good. For instance, choosing my big leather armchair as the main celestial body, having around it and at a distance of fifty centimeters in east-west position a wooden table (originally, a carpenter’s bench and strongly imbued with artisanal emotions); behind the armchair, at a distance of two and a half meters, the skull of a crocodile; to the left of the armchair, among other objects, a pipe inlaid with fake diamonds, and to the right, at a distance of three meters, a green earthenware pitcher; I have a solar system (I won’t go into a detailed description of the whole, it would be too long), which I can move at will, knowing beforehand the effects I can generate, though at times the unpredictable is generated, provoked by the rapid trajectory of an unexpected meteor across my established order. The meteor is none other than my cat, but little by little I’ve been able to master this haphazard factor, since I’ve discovered that by feeding the cat nothing but sheep’s milk, his trajectory generates almost no effect.
Of course, my friends are also busy arranging in an optimal way little solar systems in their own houses, and we’ve established an interdependence among them. We sometimes swap celestial bodies from one house to another and, of course, no modification is made unless we are all in agreement, because any other way, things that are sometimes unpleasant occur. I should say that we’ve managed to achieve all of this thanks to a very long and in-depth study of mathematical variations and combinations, but to that end availing ourselves of one of our members’ innate ability to group people and objects according to their true nature. The first step was the explosive revelation our friend had that his right shoe, a red velvet curtain and a snippet of opera (audible at that moment) were exactly equivalent. From then on everything was easy, since, condensing things into large groups, the mathematical operations on variations and combinations are quickly done.
Now I’d like to ask your advice about something. This terrain we live on is highly volcanic (as you probably already know). A member of our group finds himself in a very difficult situation because of the volcanic tremors in the subsoil. A person of limited means, he lives in a terribly old house that lacks any comforts, though it has the advantage, on the other hand, of a lot of space and a fairly ample inner courtyard. This house is situated in a very central area of the city. Some months ago, a little mound began to rise of its own accord in the courtyard. Out of the mound a wisp of smoke and an intense heat began to emerge; afterward, at longish intervals, small amounts of something that we immediately saw, with horror, was lava. There’s no room for doubt: it’s a small volcano that perhaps at any moment could turn into a tremendous threat. Our friend, who doesn’t have the means necessary to look for other housing, wants this to be kept secret, since otherwise he’d be turned out of his house, which would gladden the owner, who, with the volcano as an excuse, would construct in that place a grand building complete with central heating.
Well then, we immediately saw the chance to do some experiments on this manifestation of nature. Among us we quickly built some walls around the volcano and a roof to conceal it from the eyes of the neighborhood. Currently, the enclosure is used as a kitchen. The little mound’s height allows you to cook over the crater easily, and I must say that it’s admirable at preparing shish kebabs and brochettes to perfection. But we’re getting away from the advice I wanted to ask you for. Despite our nonstop work, the numerous experiments, et cetera, we have been entirely unable to include in our solar systems the substances expelled by the volcano, or to use them, either, in our practices in any way. Fresh lava is totally rebellious and to all appearances acts independently. The only outcome to date has been a severe allergy attack undergone by Mrs. Carrington, who applied a certain quantity to her scalp. Perhaps you’re acquainted with the possibilities of this substance and how to harness the energy it contains. In my view, since it comes from depths not permeated by our emotions and belongs to a denser world of mineral emotions, it presently escapes our understanding, but I passionately desire to understand it in order to, if possible, help it on its flight toward a less dense world, and also to get it to understand and enter into our purposes as well. I beg you to tell me whatever you know about this material as soon as possible, since the volcano hasn’t grown more than a centimeter a week, but we cannot know what will happen in the coming months.
I’m afraid my letter may be too long, and though I’d like to talk to you of other things, especially the conviction we share about the possibility of destroying the pernicious effects of the hydrogen bomb by means of certain practices, I’ll leave the discussion of all that for another occasion, if you would be kind enough to answer me.
Letter to an Unidentified Scientist
Your letter arrived this morning with the check and I inform you of this happy development at once.
We now have permission to export the painting, and as soon as the packing crate is finished we’ll ship it to you by air. The crate will be very sturdy, we’ve ordered it from a trusted carpenter.
I thank you for the kind interest you’ve taken in my health. My fifth lumbar vertebra proved to be very rebellious and painful. This kept me from painting, but I’ve put it to use to write some well-documented anthropological notes, for I have long been wanting to point out the fact, unknown until now, that the predecessor of the Homo sapiens is the Homo rodans. I don’t know if you’ll be interested in reading these notes, but, in case you are, because it’s a matter of only a few pages, I’ll have them translated and send them to you. In any case, I’ll send you a photo of Homo rodans, which might interest you, since you are a man of science.
Before I go on, I’d like to forewarn you that, if you find a word you don’t understand in one of my letters, it’s useless to look it up in a dictionary, since my spelling is, regrettably, totally different from what’s admitted in common dictionaries, alas!
You wanted some biographical information about me. I was born in Spain, studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, went to live in Paris and was part of the surrealist group there; after that, I settled here, where the climate is much better from any point of view. I’m going to look for articles and newspaper clippings that talk about my paintings and will send them to you.
As soon as we stow the painting on the plane, I’ll write you so you’ll know that it’s been sent.
I hope that you engage in experimenting with chemicals, so that what happened to me won’t happen to you. I believe I am able to tell you what happened: I was experimenting to find a product that, strange as it seems, was neither an elixir for eternal youth nor a means of turning all the solids around me into gold. I wanted to find a substance that would soften and reduce to an imperceptible film the skin of peaches, a fruit I like a lot but which upsets my stomach because of the skin. Since I was convinced that great discoveries are perhaps the result of chance (objective chance), though one in which objectivity cannot intervene in the mathematical variations and combinations that establish a cause-and-effect relationship, I experimented with various substances. At the same time, I played certain special and individual notes on a monochord; if I am right, this sound could have a decisive and transcendental value in the substances I was attempting to combine.
Suddenly, something terrible happened. At the moment that I was playing the note B, and just as I was about to go on to another octave in a slightly more serious tone, the cat meowed and someone passing in the street in front of the window cast his shadow on the laboratory table and on the substances I had in emulsion there. These substances separated, leaving a minuscule, brilliant particle, a kind of pearl that went out the window like an arrow, rose into space and rapidly disappeared from view. But what’s terrible is that it left behind it, permanently, a thread of earthly atmosphere.
This particle of substance, insusceptible to gravity, was, fortunately, very small, and after carrying out several mathematical calculations, I’ve come to the conclusion that the earth will not lose its atmosphere before sixty-two years is up. Obviously, we have no reason to worry personally, but we ought to think of our nieces and nephews and descendants. This is what impels me to search for the way to put a cap on this dangerous opening in our atmosphere.
Although I’ve assembled the same elements, have put them in exactly the same place on the table, have done so on the same date of the year and have played B on the same monochord (that is to say, in the tone necessary for the new gravity-free pearl not to drift too far but to stop right at the edge of the atmosphere like a cap) and though my cat has meowed in the same way and all the members of my family have paraded before the window casting their shadow; in spite of everything, the experiment has not worked. I know quite well that the shadow should be of the same person who passed by back then. But who is it? I’ve searched all over, it was a man and he was cloaked in a black velvet cape, but I haven’t been able to find him, I’ve traveled, I’ve asked questions, I’ve rendezvoused with various men under my window, but none of them was him. What am I to do? Please advise me. All this happened three years ago now; we have, therefore, fifty-nine years of atmosphere left.
I beg you to write and tell me if you’ve been able to read my execrable French, also tell me your opinion of Homo rodans. A cordial greeting from
Translated by Margaret Carson
Remedios Varo (1908–1963) was a Spanish-born artist who played a significant role in the Surrealist movement in Mexico City.
Margaret Carson is the translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds and Baroni, A Journey. Her translation of Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings is forthcoming from Wakefield Press in fall of 2018. She lives in New York City and teaches at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee